The Food. I didn't expect to like, let alone love, the food in Turkey. I tend to love mediterranean cooking and though there's no pasta or risotto, I couldn't help see the similarities to Italian cuisine. The olive oil, the grilled veggies and the baklava found all over Istanbul held a striking resemblance to my family holiday dinners. It's very difficult to have a bad meal in Istanbul. I was in heaven.
The Ice Cream. Though I didn't try the Dondormasi ice cream--I wouldn't let anyone tease me when it comes to ice cream (seriously watch the video to see the show)--I partook in Mado ice cream daily. Like the Dondormasi, Mado's Maras ice cream is made from goats milk by goats who are fed a strict organic diet of thyme, wild licorice and wild orchids. It's worth going back for! After tasting it once, I wouldn't be as gracious as the patron in that video!
"You are my friend. Can I help you spend your money?" Even the kittehs are trained in luring in the passerby! The sales tactics are bold in Istanbul. It takes some real skill and a hard heart to avoid buying anything you don't want or need. Several shoe polishers kept pushing Mr. Wild Dingo to polish his boots. His boots were styled in a way that were meant to be unpolished. "Don't break my heart," said the senior citizen with the severe limp in his leg as he walked away slowly, rejected. But it's especially hard to say no to the sales kittehs.
The tiling and lighting. I'm not a fan of tiling but over time I had to appreciate it. The above photo was taken from Sergius and Bacchus church in the Hippodrome. This church (later a mosque) was far prettier than the famous Blue Mosque though much smaller. The iron lighting fixtures hang in every church and makes photography really difficult at times due to the long wires obscuring the best angles. Over time, we just worked them into our shots.
The good vibe. There are a lot of things to be worried about in a city of 16 million people. But the positive, upbeat, joyful vibe of the city over rides every one of those negatives. Pushy sales tactics aside, I found the Turks to be very friendly, warm and modern people who were alway happy to help. It was Ramadan when we visited Istanbul. We expected a much more somber or quiet atmosphere. Instead every night, the people gathered in the Hippodrome or the parks between Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and set up picnics. They drank, ate, danced, had parades with circus characters, played live music and partied into the late evening. Shops were open at 11 p.m. One time, Mr. Wild Dingo and I visited a shop just about sun down. The polite shop keeper had been fasting all day, and apologized for being in a hurry as he wanted to break fast with his family and asked us if we knew Ramadan. I never even noticed he was rushing us. They are just that polite.
The Haghia Sophia. There's no real way to convey the enormity of this ancient structure until you've been in it. The Arabic calligraphy, beautiful on its own or in mosques and structures built after the Turks invaded, here in the Haghia Sophia, seemed awkwardly out-of-place next to the Christian symbolism and mosaics.
The antiquity. Above is a statue of Alexander the Great. You know what they say. Behind every great man, is a woman ... with saggy boobs and her nose cut off. I'm just waiting for the day my nose falls off, then my man will be as great. The Archaeological Museum held some of the finest antiquity, spanning 5000 years, that I've ever seen. It was just stunning.
The history. The broken Theodosian Wall juxtaposed next to a mosque tells the story. The Theodosian walls are mind-blowing. Protecting Constantinople from land or sea attacks for 1000 years until they were finally breached in 1453 by Ottomans. It's very sad to see them in the condition that they are in and that more areas around the walls are not developed into parks and aesthetically pleasing communities. They're neither preserved appropriately (in some cases rebuilt with modern materials) nor cared for at all. It was eerie to be walking along the areas where such historically significant battles were fought.
The realization that some stuff never changes. This is the ancient library at Ephesus, the Roman Empire's second largest city (after Rome). The city contains the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which is now mostly destroyed. Ephesus is also important, as it is where John and the Virgin Mary last lived. The Gospel of John may have been written here. The library (above photo) is the most impressive still standing structure. Cleopatra and Mark Antony often visited from Alexandria to "borrow" (take) many of the scrolls. Recently, a tunnel was found under the library that leads to the nearby brothel:
"Honey, I'm off to the library to read the news and take in some philosophy," said the Roman soldier to his wife.
"Whatever. Say hello to Helena and Theodora when you see them," she probably answered. As if Roman Empire wives were born in the Neolithic ages.
The Turkish Baths. Yes, you read that right. What does a Turkish belly-dancer have to do with Turkish baths? Well, one of Istanbul's oldest Turkish baths was converted to a cultural center, where we went to Turkish Dance Night. It's not like I can take my camera into an actual turkish bath. Seriously Internet, I'm not sure your eyes could withstand the 300 lb Sumo-like women in their bra's and undies who bathe and man handle you like a piece of meat in front of about 20 other women sitting on the hot granite stone. I took three Turkish baths at Cemberlitas (all the dudes reading this should click this link, they substitute the Suma wrestlers for hot chicks), one of Istanbul's oldest and best baths, and let me tell you, there is nothing like it in the US. It's far superior and far cheaper than any of the fanciest spas in the states. You basically enter a room of nekid women hanging around on a huge hot steamy granite slab waiting for the next Sumo wrestler to order them to their spot. Then they are rubbed down with a salt scrub, followed by a big suddsy soap and a rinse. They'll even do your hair. I finally "get" why you'd want someone to bathe you now. After each of my baths, I opted for a head and shoulders massage and it was heaven. I followed up each bath and massage with a Mado ice cream cone. Life was good in Istanbul!
The hundreds of dogs and thousands of cats. It seems Istanbul doesn't discourage street cats or dogs. In fact, most dogs are tagged (like the one above) and monitored by the city. The cats are well-cared for (at least 90% of them were) by shop keepers or restaurant owners. Everywhere you went there were tons of cats and kittens. I never saw any rodents!
And that makes 11 Top Ten Istanbul.